Biggest scientific hoax ever?

FORTY years ago this week, National Geographic screened a documentary entitled The Last Tribes of Mindanao.

It won’t be celebrating the anniversary. It’s an episode which that excellent institution would rather forget.

During the 1940s, Han van Meegeren fooled the luminaries of the art world with his fake canvases. A Vermeer of his had been acquired by Hermann Göring. The Dutchmen, accused of collaboration, showed that he had painted the picture, and several others, himself.

Was it an offence to hoodwink a Nazi, he asked? Convicted, he died of heart failure before he could go to prison. ‘Old master’ drawings by the famous British forger Eric Hebborn are thought to be still in the collections of the world’s great museums. Piltdown Man was exposed as a fake in 1953 and, if an African cockroach had not been found inside the skull of a dead leopard, many would still believe in the Beast of Bodmin Moor.

Closer to home, that quintessential Irishman Micheál Mac Liammóir turned out to be English born and bred. These deceptions were perpetrated by individuals.

The Mindanao hoax, however, was the work of many people, orchestrated by a sovereign government. Mindanao is an island in the Philippines. In 1971, a bare-foot hunter stumbled on what appeared to be a Stone Age tribe living in a forest there.

Known as the Tasaday, none of its 26 members had ever encountered the outside world. They spoke what appeared to be a unique language, which had no words for conflict or war. Dressed in G-strings made of leaves, they carried no weapons and used only primitive stone tools. The forest had wild deer but the Tasaday didn’t hunt them. Living in caves, their diet consisted mainly of tadpoles, crabs and wild bananas. They had never seen rice, metal or cloth. Dishonesty, crime and marital infidelity were unknown in this apparently idyllic community. Journalists converged on Mindanao and the story was written up in newspapers and magazines all over the world. Ferdinand Marcos, then President of the Philippines, designated the Tasaday’s area a protected reserve.

The government agency charged with protecting ethnic minorities was headed by Manuel Elizalde, a colourful playboy politician, who claimed to have ‘discovered’ the Tasaday. He decided who should visit the tribe and who should not. Celebrities such as Charles Lindberg and various film stars were welcomed. So were selected journalists. Scientists, however, were met with bureaucracy and excuses when they sought access.

Only 11 anthropologists managed to study the Tasaday in the field and they were allowed to do so only for short periods. One, who reported seeing a soldier giving cooked rice to a member of the tribe, was denied further access. From 1978 onwards, virtually all visits to the Tasaday ceased on Elizalde’s instructions. Suspicions, however, had been aroused. If the tribe left its dead covered in leaves on the forest floor, as was claimed, why had no skeletons been found in the area? How could caves, in which generations of people had lived, be so pristine? There were no traces of human waste, discarded crab shells or the debris which a Stone Age community would generate. Utensils which the tribe used seemed to have been fashioned using steel knives. A community this small should be seriously inbred but there was no evidence of abnormalities.

When it was noticed a modern village was only three hours away on foot, credibility was stretched. When Marcos fell from grace in 1986, a Swiss anthropologist and two companions visited the Tasaday, unannounced. They found the caves deserted and the tribespeople, clad in jeans and t-shirts, living in huts. Two men admitted on camera to have been recruited by Elizalde to pose as tribesmen in return for gifts of clothes and cigarettes. When German journalists arrived shortly afterwards, the people were back in the caves. Then telltale undergarments were seen under the grass skirts. With the screening of ABC television’s The Tribe That Never Was, the Tasaday made world headlines once again, this time for fraud. The money raised to help protect the tribe was gone. It had been spent, Elizalde maintained, defending the tribe against hoax claims. He died of leukaemia in 1993.

Many, including some scientists, still think the original Tasaday story genuine and argue that the subsequent exposure was false. Should we celebrate a hoax this week, or a hoax about a hoax?

* The Tasaday, A Hoax or Not?


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